When you hear the word “popular” you’re probably transported back to high school where cliques of cheerleaders and football players ruled the roost while everyone else was at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Even as an adult, you probably remember where you stood in the pecking order and have some powerful emotions associated with that.
My guest today has researched why popularity plays a key role in our social and psychological development and how our place in the social pecking order as children and teenagers can affect our happiness and well-being even when we’re in our 30s and 40s. His name is Mitch Prinstein. He’s a professor of adolescent psychology at the University of North Carolina and the author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.
Today on the show, Mitch breaks down the two different types of social status: popularity and likability. He then shares research that suggests that while popularity comes with short-term benefits, it also has a tremendous amount of long-term downsides. Instead of focusing on popularity, Mitch argues that learning to be likable can get you all the benefits of status without the drawbacks. He then shares what you can do to become more likable in your life. Next we digs into the research that shows how children as young as 5 are already aware of who’s likable and who isn’t, how and why that status sensitivity goes into overdrive in your teenage years, and how being likable at a young age can have benefits well into adulthood.
This is a fascinating show with lots of great insights and even action steps on becoming more likable.
- Why popularity still plays a role in our careers, politics, and more
- The two types of popularity
- Likability vs. popularity
- The detrimental effects of low status and low likability
- How popularity affects your physiology
- The single biggest predictor of being disliked
- The costs of actively pursuing popularity and status
- What can you do to be more likable?
- How do you even know if you’re likable?
- How our status as children can follow us into adulthood
- Adolescence and identity
- How you can overcome your adolescent thoughts and habits and become a likable adult
- How social media has changed the popularity and status game
- 2 tips for using social media without the downsides
- Should parents groom their kids’ likability? How?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM’s series on status — a must-read to complement this podcast
- The Myth of the Alpha Male
- How to REALLY Be Alpha Like the Wolf
- Podcast: Take Pride
- Social Briefing series — another must-read series of short pieces on becoming more socially likable
- How to Be More Assertive
- Leadership Lessons from Dwight Eisenhower
- Podcast: Personality, Authenticity, and Identity
- Using Body Language to Make a Dynamite First Impression
- Why Your First Impression Matters
- The Charismatic Man
- Gangnam Style
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- 4 Questions to Crush FOMO
If you enjoyed our series on status, you’ll enjoy Popular. Mitch does a great job of highlighting the latest research on how our social status affects our health and well-being and what we can do to improve it.
Connect With Mitch
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you hear the word popular, you’re probably transported back to high school where even if the social scene wasn’t quite broken up into jocks and nerds as depicted in movies from the 90’s and 80’s, various groups and cliques formed some semblance of a social hierarchy. Even as an adult, you probably remember where you stood in that pecking order and have some powerful emotions associated with that. My guest today has researched why popularity plays a key role in our social and psychological development and how our place in the social pecking order, even as children and teenagers, can affect our happiness and wellbeing even when we’re in our 30’s and 40’s. His name is Mitch Prinstein, he’s the professor of adolescent psychology at the University of North Carolina and the author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World.
Today on the show, Mitch breaks down the two types of social status that he researched, popularity and likeability. He then shares research that suggests that while popularity comes with some short term benefits, it also has a tremendous amount of long term downsides. Instead of focusing on popularity, Mitch argues that learning to be likable can get you all the benefits of status without the drawbacks and shares what you can do to become more likable in your own life. He then digs into the research that shows children as young as five are already aware of who’s likable and who isn’t, they’re already forming these pecking orders, and how and why that status sensitivity goes into overdrive in your teenager years and how being likable at a young age can have benefits well into adulthood. Fascinating show, filled with great insights and practical tips. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/popular. Mitch Prinstein, welcome to the show.
Mitch Prinstein: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You’re a psychologist, you just published a book called Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World. I’m curious, popularity, it’s a touchy topic for a lot of people. What got you researching that idea, popularity and particularly status?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, I had been interested in popularity since even I was a kid. I’m not sure exactly why but I was always so curious why some folks were so much more popular than others. It was when I got to grad school that I started to realize that it turned out to be way more important than even I had thought. I was surprised to learn how much popularity affects our health and our futures and our kids and it really just took off from there.
Brett McKay: You mentioned in the book, the beginning of the book, you taught a course, I guess you’re UNC, right? University of North Carolina?
Mitch Prinstein: I am.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you taught a course on popularity and you didn’t think it would garner much attention but it was one of those classes where kids were sitting in the alleyways hopefully someone would drop the class so they could get in. Why do you think people are so interested in this topic?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, it was crazy. That first time that I taught it, it was actually when I was at Yale and they don’t have a pre-registration system so anyone who wants to take a course just shows up. When I got there, there was this huge crowd outside the building which I had no idea was for the class but I turned out that 500 kids had showed up to take this. I asked them, why are you all so interested in this topic? Are you looking to feel better about your own high school experiences? That wasn’t it at all, actually. I was really surprised. These kids at Yale, they had some really cool opportunities and many of them had already been interns for congress people and they had worked in hospitals and sports teams. What they said was that popularity is a dynamic that continues to play out in every way imaginable as adults. It really matters for who gets hired or not. It matters for who has their ideas heard versus not. It even relates to our happiness and they recognized that, these really smart kids really saw that popularity dynamics, it’s not something we typically learn but it’s one of the most important skills that we have and they wanted to know how to succeed as adults.
Brett McKay: I think when most people think about popularity, they probably think back to high school where I think this was more so when maybe when we were in high school or growing up where being popular meant you were a football player or a cheerleader. You were a jerk, et cetera. But in your book, the idea of popularity that you’re highlighting is much more nuanced than that in that there’s actually different types of popularity. What are those two types and what are their characteristics?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, one type of popularity is exactly the kind that you say, it’s those cheerleaders, football players, the ones that were maybe even a little aggressive or mean to others but somehow they had that status. Everyone knew them, people wanted to be like them. That is one kind of popularity but it’s not the first one that we experience. The first kind of popularity we start experiencing, believe it or not, as young as when we’re three years old. When you ask a three year old who’s the most popular, they pick the kid who’s the most likable. Someone that makes them feel good, someone that they enjoy spending time with, and that likability factor continues to be a form of popularity that is important for the rest of our lives. But our adolescent brains turn us onto this brand new form of popularity that starts at around the age of 11 or 12 and it’s that status type. The reason why it’s really important for people to pick up on these two very different types is because they lead to completely opposite outcomes.
Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, when I read that, there’s status popularity, I’ve read other psychological research on the area of status and whatever and there’s some other people have differentiated between the two, there’s status popularity would be like dominance where you achieve that status by you can be aggressive, et cetera. Then likability sounds a lot like prestige, where it’s more of an earned where you’re useful to people and because of that usefulness and because you’re helpful, people give you status.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s about right. About 30% of those who have high status are also really, really likable. The rest of them are actually quite hated by others. Similarly, there are many, many people who are likable but never have any status at all but they still benefit from having likability. We really do want to be likable and want our kids and coworkers to be likable, it helps them in pretty mysterious and fascinating ways but status is all about the dominance and aggression and really making yourself seem somehow better than or more important than others.
Brett McKay: You often hear people say, “Status doesn’t matter. Who cares what other people think? I don’t care what other people think about me.” But you highlight research in the book that shows that low status can have some serious detrimental effects on people. What are some of the downsides of low status?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, if you’re low in likability or low in status, it actually does lead to a lot of negative outcomes. Most of the research has looked at those that are disliked and those folks indeed are at much greater risk for problems down the road. The low likable kids tend to also be aggressive and they miss out on so many opportunities where either they could’ve gotten ahead or they could’ve learned better skills. They’re the last invited to every party, they’re the last to learn how to date and make friends, and they’re the last picked to be part of groups, even as adults. That gives them a disadvantage that continues to perpetuate year after year, context after context.
Brett McKay: It’s not only the social stuff, this actually can affect us physiologically as well, right?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, I had no idea that this was such a powerful force but it turns out that our bodies are really very programmed to make sure that we are part of the herd because I guess it used to be the case that maybe 60,000 years ago that being surrounded by others and accepted by others really guaranteed our survival. If we were alone, there was a better chance that we would die. We now see that the brain responds really dramatically at the very moment that you start to perceive that you might be getting excluded or rejected. That trickles down, believe it or not, even to our DNA. There’s dormant DNA that we’re all walking around with but it’s shut off and the minute you start perceiving that you might be excluded, that DNA turns on and it turns on in a way that activates what’s called a pro-inflammatory response. In other words, it prepares your body to be injured because that’s what would happen to you if you were alone years ago. Because we are now in a society where you’re not likely to get injured at the moment you’re excluded, that inflammatory response is unnecessary and actually becomes harmful. It’s interesting that the vast majority of diseases that we’re effected by as humans today is because of this hyper inflammatory response.
Brett McKay: Yeah, going back to that idea where people say I don’t care about status, what I think when they say that, what they mean is I don’t care about a particular type of status or I don’t care about having status or belonging to that particular group but they need some sort of status whether it’s part of a different group. If you’re in high school, you might not be a football player but you could do something else, you need to be a part of some sort of group.
Mitch Prinstein: Exactly. We don’t necessarily all want to be the cool kids anymore or we don’t want to be celebrities necessarily but it is in fact human nature to care about the way that you interact with others. We are human species and we may not be the kind of species that cares about it in a high school way anymore but we are a species that is attuned to our standing among others. We individually care about connections with others absolutely and very profound ways. What’s important is that I think that those folks that pretend to think that popularity is completely irrelevant, might be missing out on a few really important ways that they could be helping themselves and being a lot more happy. There’s an important medium place between being too concerned about popularity and pretending that you don’t care about it at all because it’s more important that we recognize it’s a real force in our lives and let’s use it for good.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this status type popularity. The one I think we often think of when we think of popularity. You mentioned earlier that you can be popular and have this status popularity but at the same time, be despised. How’s that possible?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah. The people who have the highest status, whether they be CEOs or those cheerleaders and football players, there are a couple of problems. The first is that especially if they experience that as kids, they tend to be, research says, a bit too focused on their standing and their status. Every interaction is measuring up whether others have as much status as them and when they have failings, they tend to attribute it to being too concerned about status and that’s a problem because no one likes a status seeker. We look at that as being too egregious, as an attempt to garner attention and acclaim. That’s a turn off. But the second important issue is that one of the most effective ways of getting status is to be aggressive. To put others down as a way of making yourself a little bit higher on that status hierarchy. Aggression is the single biggest predictor of being disliked. What happens is you have these high status folks who can never stop caring about their status. They put other people down in really aggressive ways and they seem so focused on their status that they’re no longer actually connecting with people as people. They’re just instruments to make them feel more important and more noticeable. That is how people who are too focused on status become really, really disliked.
Brett McKay: Then eventually that dislike will eventually knock them off the totem pole, right?
Mitch Prinstein: Oh yeah. Everyone that I interviewed for the book and everyone who’s ever been in a workplace probably can tell you the story of the corporate climber who was able to get really high but ultimately, they reached a limit because they were so dislikable and used others so much that it finally all collapsed for them. That happens in so many different ways, we all know those stories and they’re true. That’s exactly the way that the research says that it works.
Brett McKay: This also happens with chimpanzees. I know that there’s some males that can become the alpha male through dominance where they just basically beat the crap out of the other ones but eventually the other chimps team together and they just beat the crap out of the alpha chimp and make him go away. They put someone else who’s more … I think chimps have the same idea of status, there’s dominance status and prestige status. You can climb up the chimp hierarchy by grooming the other chimps, providing food, et cetera and those are the ones that tend to stay on the top the longest.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s exactly right and it’s not an accident that we have that similarity because the part of our brain that cares so much about status and is responsive to social rewards, it’s not the part of the brain that’s unique to humans, which is more of the cortex. It’s the part of the brain that’s really primitive, it exists in a lot of species, and it’s this part that says we will be rewarded when we think about, look at, or have any interaction with high status people. When we’re, whether we’re on Instagram or whether we are feeling that influence and that power in offline worlds, it activates that part of the brain. If we seem pretty similar to other less developed species in that way, that’s for really good reason and there is something very primitive and animalistic about the ways that some people seek status and attack others in order to get it. It, in fact, is exactly the way that we see among chimpanzees.
Brett McKay: This status type popularity, it comes with cost eventually. I mean, eventually you’ll be hoisted on your own petard but you also highlight there’s psychological cost for pursuing this type of popularity. It actually makes you feel terrible even though you’re feeling good too a bit.
Mitch Prinstein: That’s right. There’s a remarkably high rate of depression amongst CEOs. Celebrities are the first to tell you that they’re awfully lonely and a number of the celebrity interviews in the book really talk about exactly the process of how status starts to create a persona that’s not really who they are but they have to maintain that persona and feed that persona and people end up really being interested more in the persona than the person they really are and that makes them very lonely. Research that has followed those most popular kids in high school or has looked at the folks that have high status as adults, have found that they’re at much greater risk for substance use, loneliness, anxiety, and problems with their relationships. Their closest friends and partners actually don’t think that they have good relationships with those high status folks.
Brett McKay: If this type of popularity, this status dominant type popularity comes with social and psychological loss, who do people even seek it? What’s going on there?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s part of who we are as humans. We are those kinds of animals that care about it. We used to be a species that would grow out of that desire to be high in status and be cool in that way but things really changed, they changed somewhere in the 80’s when our society started to focus more and more on ways that anyone could try and get that instant fame and status. Really if you look at it, the entire dialogue and the virtues that we care about as a society, started to change. Instead of relying on one another and caring about community and connection, everyone wanted what sometimes is called the American dream but really has morphed into having your own reality show and having the most Twitter followers and somehow making yourself seem more important than everyone else. We are now a society where you can exist pretty independently. You can even just sit at home and have everything delivered to you and feed your Facebook profile. It’s no accident that the more that we have distanced ourselves from others, the more we’ve started to favor status over likability and that’s become a really big concern. In some ways, we’ve developed a society to make us all want the very thing that will hurt us the most.
Brett McKay: You also highlight research too in the book that this status seeking popularity that people go for, it shuts down parts of the brain where the executive control. Sometimes people do terrible things, they know it’s terrible but they do it anyway because they know that it will get them some sort of status.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, so that part of the brain, that real primitive part of the brain, it’s of course connected to all the other parts of the brain and people are starting to figure out now once you activate that part that’s really responsive to that status or what neuroscientists call social rewards, we’re starting to learn a little bit about how that affects the other areas. One of the areas that is has direct lines to, apparently, is what’s called the prefrontal cortex. That’s like the brains brakes. It’s what stops us from doing impulsive things. Yeah, the more that we get that status experience and we get the activation of the social rewards part of our brain, it seems to shut down the brakes. We’re more prone to do impulsive acts, especially because people with high status get rewarded every time they do something aggressive and impulsive. It teaches them if you want higher status, keep on doing aggressive, impulsive stuff. These days, we all wake up in the morning and see exactly what’s happening on Twitter and who’s saying what in the political world or elsewhere and we see this process playing out every day. It’s exactly the way the research discusses it.
Brett McKay: Right. It made me think of, there’s a kid on YouTube, he’s not a kid, he’s a grown man now. He does pranks and he basically is just annoying. He just makes people feel terrible but he gets a lot of YouTube followers because of it. He gets a lot of views because of it. That’s probably what’s going on.
Mitch Prinstein: Yep, exactly.
Brett McKay: All right, let’s talk about likability. Status, dominance popularity is the not good kind. What can people do to be more likable? I think we’ve referred to little things, some things you can do, just be useful, be helpful to others but what are some other things people do to become likable?
Mitch Prinstein: There’s so many things that we can do because there’s not one single recipe but there are a couple of things that seem a little bit less obvious that I think are really important to highlight. Because a lot of people think that in order to be likable, you have to cow tow to everyone else’s wishes and you have to somehow be passive. Turns out that’s exactly wrong. The most likable people are actually the best leaders and the way that they lead is that they make everyone feel included and that’s key is you make people feel like they’re part of the herd and you suddenly become the leader of the herd for doing so. The ways that you do that is rather than tell other people that their ideas are bad and wrong and your ideas are better, it’s to make sure that everyone feels like their input was important, appreciated, it was met with a positive response, and then maybe synthesizing that and moving people in the direction that you think is necessary. That’s okay, that can work and in fact, that’s a really good idea to do but not by overpowering others’ opinions or making them feel less than. That’s really important.
Other ways that we make people feel part of the herd is just by generally being very positive and enthusiastic around them. When they feel like their presence is met with enjoyment and being really pumped by the fact that they’re around and the things they have to say, they automatically like you because it makes them feel like wow, I’m an important part of this interaction. I’m needed, I’m wanted and we’re programmed to want to feel needed and wanted. You make people feel that way and they’re going to like you forever.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds like the archetype for this. A few years ago, we did the whole series about Dwight Eisenhower and his leadership style. Ike was like that. That’s what made him such an effective leader, he was optimistic, he listened to people, he tried to make people feel involved in the process, and as a consequence of that, people saw him as a leader.
Mitch Prinstein: That’s right. A lot of people will talk about the boss that they would be willing to do anything for and when you ask them to tell you about that boss, they’ll say things like, “They would shake my hand and look me right in the eye and I really felt like they knew who I was or cared who I was.” Or they’ll tell you about somebody who met them years ago but still remembered their name and something important about them. It’s those people that make you feel truly cared about and connected that make you feel part of the herd and your presence is important to them. Those are the people that we tend to like the most. They also become those with the highest status because they use their likability very wisely. It’s very different than the person that gets high status because they’ve stepped on everyone else.
Brett McKay: How do you know if you’re likable or not? You might think you are but you’re actually not.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s a really good question because we’re actually not the best judges of this ourselves. I sometimes joke that you should gather all of your friends in a room and ask them and if the room you’re in is empty, then that gives you the answer that you need. If you do speak with others and you feel like you’re getting a positive response from them, in other words, they’re happy when they’re around you, they’re smiling, they’re laughing, that’s a good yet obvious clue. A lot of us can look at our relationship histories. Is there a pattern of people getting close to us and then more distant? Is there a sense of people getting more agitated with us? Do people seem to get more energized when we’re around them or do they seem to start downward spiral into a negative loop? These are the best ways we can tell but in the research, we don’t ask people how likable they are because we don’t expect them to give us a valid answer. We have to ask the people around them and they give us the information that we need.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back to this idea of how our status as children, how that can follow us into adulthood. First off, why is that? I mean, when you’re an adult, sometimes I feel like I’m a completely different person than the kid I was when I was 14 yet the research shows that the experience I had as a 14 year old is influencing me now. What’s going on there?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, there’s a couple things going on but one of the things that happens is that it turns out that in our minds’ eye, we sometimes do think of ourselves still as being young. It’s an interesting duality. A lot of us will say, “I’m a completely different person. I’m not at all the adolescent I used to be.” But other times we might feel like the way we looked back then or the way that people treated us back then still haunts us a little bit. There’s even a study that shows it’s not how tall you are as an adult that predicts your salary, tall people make more money than shorter people, but it’s how tall you were when you were 16 that makes a bigger difference. As if we carry around the mental image of who we were as an adolescent for the rest of our lives. There’s now research to support that. Those old, autobiographical memories when we were young, they actually serve as a filter. They area biasing us what we see and how we interpret what we see every single day.
There’s a really cool study where they asked folks with prior histories of being popular and prior histories of not being popular to all watch the same exact video of social interactions. What they found is that the people who grew up popular, they tended to focus on the parts of video where people were having positive interactions. They even had them wear eye tracking devices to see what their eyes looked at and they found that those people spent most of the time staring at the parts of the video where people were happy and having good interactions. The exact opposite happened for people who grew up unpopular. They spent their time staring mostly at the negative interactions in that same video and when asked later to talk about what the video was like, they told a very sad story about the exact same video. The reason why that’s important is because that’s what’s happening to us every day. Two people walk away from the same experience with a somewhat different interpretation of what just happened. That all stems back to what happened to us in adolescence, believe it or not. That’s what’s guiding these filters and biases.
Brett McKay: What is it about adolescence that sets this stuff in stone, that really makes status top of mind? We’re more attuned to it.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, there are two times in our life when our brains change really dramatically. One is when we’re infants but the second is the transition to adolescence and that’s when we really develop the brain that we will have for the rest of adulthood and we start to learn how to store these memories for a long time. Our brain does that well. Adolescence is the time that we start to establish our first sense of a firm identity. If you ask little kids about who they are as a person, they don’t really have a good answer but if you ask an adolescent, they use a lot of words that reflects how much they’re starting to understand themselves as a person that’s different from others, that has stable traits. There’s something about the primacy of our identity being established in adolescence for the first time that it ends up being really powerful. It’s probably why when you ask someone about popularity through adolescence, they still talk about it kind of emotionally sometimes. It’s as if that experience just happened even thought it could’ve been decades ago. That stuff in adolescence sticks with us. It’s really an important part of who we are even decades later.
Brett McKay: Basically we’re establishing patterns in adolescence and how we interact based on our status. It carries over to adulthood. What can we do as adults? Let’s say we have this tendency to not be likable, we do things because that’s just what we’re used to. How can you get over that high school self of yours and start acting in a way that will allow you to be likable and gain more status in a positive way?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s a great question and a really important one. This is what I really hope people can get from the book and why I wrote it is to finally get over all of those experiences and be able to live a happier life now. Here’s what needs to happen. Most of us tend to think that we are so beyond our adolescence that we’re a completely different person now and none of what happened to us before is relevant. We try to sweep it all under the rug. That’s the problem, is that we are likely to repeat the patterns that are happening if we don’t acknowledge that those are the patterns that we have.
The first thing we need to do is just come to terms with who were we as adolescents and let’s not sweep it under the rug, let’s talk about it and let’s think about how that might be making us a little more sensitive to rejection now or a little to prone to expect the worst from people now. Let’s own that stuff and then once we recognize that, it’s actually remarkably easy to start noticing when we’re falling into that trap. When we’re in an interaction, we walk out assuming that something bad just happened, checking in with others and getting a sense of whether everyone thought the same way. When you realize that you are maybe in the minority in that interpretation, starting to realize wait a minute, I think that that’s a little bit of the legacy that came from my adolescence, let me check myself on that, let me open up the possibility that may automatic reactions to things might be a little bit biased. Once you start getting in the habit of just questioning those automatic, what feels like your instincts, and realizing that they’ve maybe not helped you so much, it starts to become really easy to change them and to change your biases and your filters in ways that are really, really powerful but the first step is realizing that you have a bias at all, which means taking those memories out from under the rug and really looking at them.
Brett McKay: Then people will start noticing as they start acting a way that makes them more likable, there’s a positive feedback loop that begins, a virtuous cycle that starts.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, if you walk into a room and you have your arms folded and you’re not making eye contact, research says that people around you, it will actually change their mood. They will feel badly, they will feel more depressed, and they will attribute that to every time you walk in the room, you’re the downer. This is another way that we repeat patterns. We assume I’ll be rejected when I enter this new experience and then we behave in ways that re-affirm and guarantee that we’ll be rejected. Though it turns out it’s just as easy to change things the other way. If you walk into a room expecting something positive to happen and without even trying, it’s actually more likely that you will get a positive outcome just by having that expectation. When that happens, it tends to feed on itself in this incredibly cyclical and powerful way. While researching the book and thinking about those things myself, I was able to even try it out in a few different ways and talk with people who have done that and look at research and the effects are incredible. Just the most subtle things that you do in a social interaction or ways that you think about expecting acceptance and being more popular and having favorable outcomes, it can trigger a cycle that lasts for days and weeks and months.
Brett McKay: You’ve talked about a little bit but how has social media influenced our status drive? This is a relatively new thing, the past 10 or 12 years where everyone can have a platform, basically. That didn’t exist in the 80’s or 90’s. How’s that changed the status game?
Mitch Prinstein: Social media can be used in a lot of different ways and it can be used as a way of connecting with others and becoming more likable. Sharing things and developing relationships, all that can be great and there’s some evidence to say that social media can be really helpful. But the problem is, it also opens up a potential trap because social media really emphasizes status. It tells you on the front page the number of responses that you’ve gotten or likes or followers or retweets, whatever platform it is, there’s a lot of emphasis on quantifying measures that’s basically status. How much did people notice you? How much reach and influence do you have? The truth is, for the same reasons that we talked about before in the brain, it actually is addictive. Seeing that and getting that temporary rush of seeing that you had 300 retweets, it feels really good and it makes you more likely to want to do it again. Some people really get trapped in only tweeting things or only posting things as a way to get others to like them and follow them and retweet what they’re having to say. It starts to take the humanity out of it and we start to become those chimpanzees that are just bar pressing in order to get more signs of status. That’s a problem.
It’s a problem when we start to lose the opportunity to make real connections and focus only on getting these temporary hits, these biological rushes, much like what we would get from drugs. It’s also a problem when we see research studies that show that you can actually influence someone’s attitudes and beliefs just by pairing things they used to hate with markers that those things got lots of likes. There’s now evidence to say that just seeing something you hate associate with a lot of likes, makes you hate it a lot less. That’s a pretty scary way of thinking about attitude and influence and persuasion that also is potentially dangerous.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that is scary. Yeah, it reminds me, there was that study done about music. It was the Stanford Music Lab where in one group they had people listen to different music. There’s just dance music, whatever. People could see how many likes or downloads a song was getting and the more downloads or likes a song got, the more it got. As far as this snowball effect. But in the other factor, people couldn’t see what other people were ranking these songs and people ended up ranking things differently. Yeah, see something, I’m realizing “Gangham Style” that YouTube video, it was one of the most played YouTube songs ever. It wasn’t a good song, I think it was terrible. I think if most people, if they listened to it by themselves not knowing what other people were liking or sharing this thing, I think most people would be like this is not that great of a song but because everyone saw that it was the most downloaded song on YouTube, everyone started listening to it more, that is actually a great, catchy song.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, isn’t that amazing how much we are influenced by popularity? Try to resist clicking on a website that everyone tells you is the best website. Try to not talk about something that everyone else is talking about. It again goes to our basic human programming. As soon as we learn that there’s something that everyone else seems to like or has visited or prefers, it tempts us, it pulls us in interesting ways to suddenly want to see it. We have to know about it, we have to hear about it, and in many cases, it does influence our preferences. Yeah, people will love “Gangham Style” because they heard that everyone else does, even though objectively, there’s no reason that anyone should ever love that song. Yeah, that’s what the research found as well, they manipulated that list of who had downloaded what song and when they chose the worst song and they made it look like it was everyone’s favorite, suddenly everyone started thinking it was their favorite too. It’s amazing how much we’re all conformists at heart whether we think that that’s happening or not.
Brett McKay: How do you use social media without experiencing these downsides? You said it can be like a drug and most of the times, if you have a drug addiction, you stop using the drug completely. Social media, you’re suggesting you can use social media, this potential drug, but not have the effect of that drug of its status drive. Do you have any suggestions based on your own experience or maybe the experience of your students and how you can navigate that?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, I would say two things, one is just like we might say for other things that are potentially addictive, use it in moderation. Catch yourself if you start finding that you’re getting a little bit too stuck on it. Use it in moderation. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, I think we all get pulled to try and post things or say things because we’re wondering how will that play on social media. Even as publicizing the book, I was encouraged to try and develop a social media profile in order to sell the book, so it became very meta for me to do the exact things that I had written about doing or not doing. I could see the traps, I could really see it. I would get followed by somebody who had millions of followers and I would start thinking, “Oh, well, what could I say that they’ll retweet? Then once they retweet it, maybe I’ll get their followers.”
There was this pull to start to say things just to gain the system, whether I firmly believed in those things or not and that was to me a really good sign of wait a minute, if I’m doing these things only as a way of gaining status but I don’t sincerely care or believe in them as much as it might seem, that’s a bad sign. That’s when you need to log off for a little while and realize that you are being lured into the world of status and it’s no longer a genuine expression of who you are anymore. That to me was a good warning sign of when I needed to take a pause.
Brett McKay: I know a lot of our listeners are parents and you end the book talking about what parents can do to help their children navigate the world of status because as you said, this is something that affects us significantly throughout our lives but no one really sits down to tell you here’s what you can do to be more likable and you shouldn’t seek status popularity. Knowing that likable children tend to do better later in life than unlikable or even unpopular kids, should parents go out of their way to make their kids likable? For example, my kid’s starting school and I’ve already seen this start happening, every parent in this class is having a back to school party and there’s three of them or something this week and I’m just like that never happened when I was a kid. I’m like, parents, take it easy. Should parents go out of their way to groom their kids social life so they’re more likable?
Mitch Prinstein: You know, maybe they should because all the things that we teach kids, whether it’s reading or writing or other skills that are formally taught in school, those are important, we should be teaching those. But the research does say that kids that are likable tend to have greater success in every measure. At work, their salaries, their relationship happiness, even their children’s happiness. It’s all predicted and it predicts above and beyond all those things we formally teach. I would say yes, we absolutely should be teaching kids how to be likable. The key is to make sure that we understand the difference between the two kinds of popularity and we don’t accidentally start teaching them to become popular in the way that refers to status because that will lead to bad outcomes. I really hope that people are able to use the information that’s provided in the book really well. It’s basically an instruction manual of exactly how to help think about the factors that are making your kids more or less likable and how to avoid the traps that will make them care too much about status, which is what we don’t want.
Brett McKay: Well Mitch, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Mitch Prinstein: The book is called Popular and it’s available at all major retailers of course and my website is mitchprinstein.com and that also has some links to the book and some other resources.
Brett McKay: All right, Mitch Prinstein. Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Mitch Prinstein, he’s the author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at mitchprinstein.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/popular where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast, you’ve gotten something out of it, since you’ve been listening for a while, I appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Help us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.